Friends and the Earth Charter

For me, September 9, 2001, was a day filled with hope and joy, in contrast to the tragic events that took place two days later. I had the privilege of joining more than 500 people at Shelburne Farms, in Shelburne, Vermont, to celebrate and honor the Earth Charter, a worldwide movement to replace war and injustice with peace and justice for the life community. Paul Winter offered sensuous music that evoked the sounds and rhythms of nature as well as the human longing for beauty and connection. One of the co-creators of the Earth Charter, Steven Rockefeller, shared its history and the unique democratic process that created it. Jane Goodall explained how the Earth Charter gives her another reason for hope for a peaceful, just, and sustainable planet. All the participants celebrated through music, ritual, and art.

The first paragraph of the Preamble to the Earth Charter provides the best insight into its purpose and direction and why it should be celebrated and promoted by Friends:

We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.

Friends have a long and rich history of working for peace and justice, not just from their own perspective, but side-by-side with other faith groups and organizations. Nonetheless, we are often seen as a fringe group by the dominant culture. What better way to convince that culture to join our work for peace and justice than to develop a common language, a common vision, and a common set of principles by which to live?

I believe that is what the Earth Charter offers. It is the product of a decade-long, worldwide, cross-cultural conversation about humanity’s common goals and shared values. Although it was inspired in part by the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, its persuasive power is due largely to the fact that it has evolved independent of conventional governmental and corporate processes.

The breadth and depth of the Earth Charter is shown in the titles of its four main sections:

I. Respect and Care for the Community of Life.
II. Ecological Integrity.
III. Social and Economic Justice.
IV. Democracy, Nonviolence, and Peace.

Within those sections are 16 principles that reflect extensive international consultations, not by heads of state, but by a variety of citizens of many classes, of many countries. John Scull of Canadian Yearly Meeting reminded Friends that it is important to understand that the Earth Charter is not just about ecological integrity, but includes social and economic justice, democracy, peace, and respect for diversity. If you look at the faith and action of most monthly meetings, you would see them adhering to these principles already, whether they’ve heard of it or not. The great power of the Earth Charter comes from its emphasis on the interconnectedness of all these concerns.

I believe that the Earth Charter can become the common frame of reference for humans. It was written by a diverse set of people, and if that group could come to agreement on the language, we Friends should be able to find how our particular language can harmonize with the Earth Charter language. The Earth Charter is compatible with our Quaker testimonies. I have facilitated workshops for Friends on the Earth Charter, and the participants are asked to find these compatabilities. It’s never a difficult exercise. One stumbling block for some Friends is that they wish it had been written by Friends since some of the language is secular. But it is not ours to change, only to understand "where the words are coming from," and to reflect on how endorsing it challenges us in our actions.

What should Friends do in response?

It is significant to me that there is a growing awareness of ecological integrity within our historic testimonies. What happens when a Friends meeting studies, reflects on, and then endorses the Earth Charter?

Many meetings have taken creative approaches to studying the Earth Charter, with articles in their newsletters, activities in their adults’ and children’s religious education classes, and even games to play. At Burlington, (Vt.) Meeting (my meeting), Earth Charter cards were created. For inspiration, people could pick a card on which there was a painting depicting a principle on one side and an Earth Charter principle on the other. We also invented a "Twister"-type game, where the Earth Charter principles and Quaker testimonies were linked by stretching out bodies.

The Unity with Nature Committee of Goose Creek Meeting of Lincoln, Virginia, encouraged its members to become familiar with the Earth Charter by providing two-page commentary inserts in the meeting newsletter over four successive months.

New England Yearly Meeting’s Friends in Unity with Nature Committee was charged by the yearly meeting to bring awareness of the Earth Charter to yearly meeting members. According to the NEYM minute, endorsing the Earth Charter "indicates a commitment to the aims and spirit of the Charter . . . [and] demonstrates a commitment to its values and willingness to work locally and regionally as we feel led." At the 2003 sessions, different principles were highlighted each day with posters and discussions, and a workshop on the Earth Charter was offered.

Victoria, (B.C.) Meeting’s minute endorsing the Earth Charter stated: "Our endorsement [will] mean taking a proactive stand, both individually and as a meeting, to promote and to live according to its principles." State College, (Pa.) Meeting’s letter to the Earth Charter Secretariat stated: "We will seek to apply its principles in our programs, policies, and other activities. When feasible, we will promote it at an educational level in formal and nonformal settings."

Ottawa, (Ont.) Meeting decided to make their endorsement of the Earth Charter real by agreeing to take the David Suzuki "Nature Challenge ( /Take_Action), which they reformatted as a survey to find out which actions were of most interest to the members of the meeting. Consequently they will be reducing their dependency on electricity by at least 10 percent.

Philadelphia Yearly Meeting endorsed the Earth Charter in May 2002, and in January 2003 it adopted a minute on energy stewardship in meeting facilities and grounds.

Here are some of the actions monthly meetings have taken in response:

  • Centre Meeting in Centreville, Del., has removed electricity from its meeting building.
  • Chestnut Hill Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa., has switched to 100 percent wind power, installed programmable thermostats, bought a new energy-efficient refrigerator, and installed compact fluorescent lights in all spots.
  • Cropwell Meeting in Marlton, N.J., installed a new wood stove (replacing coal).
  • Goshen Meeting near West Chester, Pa., conducted an energy audit and switched to renewable energy.
  • Mount Holly (N.J.) Meeting purchased a small Energy Star refrigerator and buys renewable electricity.
  • Valley Meeting in Wayne, Pa., buys renewable energy and uses compact fluorescent bulbs.
  • At Burlington (Vt.) Meeting, we have installed new energy-efficient heaters and compact fluorescent bulbs. We drink Fair Trade coffee, guaranteeing that the growers and producers are paid a fair wage, and are considering our environmental responsibilities in the renovations about to begin.
  • Buffalo (N.Y.) Meeting has minuted agreement to purchase renewable energy credits.
  • Bellingham (Wash.) Meeting uses recycled paper for its newsletter, drinks Fair Trade coffee and cocoa, encourages carpooling, and uses reusable plates, mugs, utensils, and napkins.
  • Hamilton (Ont.) Meeting drinks Fair Trade coffee, composts waste, recycles paper, and is insulating its meetinghouse.

These actions give me hope. They reflect a changing attitude among Friends towards an "Earthcare Testimony." Although the immediate concern of human suffering is still the main focus of Friends actions, many are coming to understand that there can be no peace without a planet, and that what we do to one part of creation affects the whole.

Friends are encouraged to study and reflect on the Earth Charter (see, bring it to their monthly meetings for endorsement, report their endorsement to the Earth Charter Secretariat, and put their "faith into action."
The full text of the Earth Charter is available at

Ruah Swennerfelt

Ruah Swennerfelt, a member of Burlington, (Vt.) Meeting, is general secretary of Quaker Earthcare Witness.